On his way back to the clubhouse Tuesday afternoon when he was done with fielding practice, Hiroki Kuroda heard little girls and grown men call his name. The calls were louder than usual and there were more of them.
He stopped. He signed autographs. He seemed content.
Kuroda has often said he’s worried about what the fans at Dodger Stadium think of him and whether he is living up to the three-year, $35.3-million contract he signed in the winter.
I wasn’t at Dodger Stadium on Monday night when Kuroda nearly pitched a perfect game. I waited in the Dodgers’ clubhouse on Tuesday with a pack of Japanese reporters to hear what he had to say about his one-hit, 91-pitch shutout the previous night that Manager Joe Torre called “crazy.”
But Kuroda wasn’t around. He took fielding practice, signed autographs, ate in the team’s dining room and slipped by us into the trainer’s room.
What I managed to get was the tape recorder belonging to Takashi Yamakawa of the Kyodo News, the Japanese equivalent of the Associated Press. On the recorder was Kuroda’s postgame question-and-answer session with Japanese reporters, which, as expected, was more revealing than what he told the English-speaking media.
Kuroda spoke with a tone of remorse when talking about how he lost the perfect game when Atlanta’s Mark Teixeira hit a double in the eighth.
“Even if I didn’t give up a hit there, I probably would’ve given up one later,” he said. “I have to think that way. If not I’ll get upset.”
He gave up the hit on a slider on the inside of the plate to the switch-hitting Teixeira, who was hitting left-handed. He threw inside because the count was 2-2 and a leadoff walk with only a 3-0 lead, he said, “wouldn’t have been good for the flow of the game.”
Throwing inside against the seven left-handers in the Braves’ lineup was something Kuroda said he tried to avoid all night.
“I didn’t feel like any one of my pitches was that good,” he said, “but if I had to choose one, I would say it was my two-seamer away against left-handers.”
Kuroda said that Russell Martin suggested that plan of attack in a pregame meeting. Kuroda had struggled against the New York Mets’ lefty-heavy lineup. His two starts against the Mets lasted a combined six innings and he gave up nine runs.
When Kuroda removed his cap as he walked off the field Monday night, he did that, too, at Martin’s insistence.
More than anything, Kuroda said he felt relieved. He admitted that he wanted the fans’ approval.
“The pressure from the fans was more intense than that of the game,” he said. “The times I couldn’t win and live up to the fans’ expectations were very tough for me. There were painful times. I think I was able to appeal myself to the fans and that’s what makes me happy.”